Lost in translation: Lufthansa and Cali ATC face language barrier
The language barrier between a diverted Lufthansa flight and a Cali air traffic controller led to a confusing, and potentially dangerous situation. Luckily, another pilot on an Avianca Brazil flight was here to save the day.
A Lufthansa Airbus A-340-600, registered as D-AIHC, was performing flight LH-542 from Frankfurt am Main Airport (FRA), Germany to El Dorado International Airport (BOG), in Bogota, Colombia, on November 17, 2018, when bad weather at its destination forced it to divert to Alfonso Bonilla Aragón International Airport (CLO), in Cali, also in Colombia.
While approaching Cali airport, the ATC instructed Lufthansa pilots to hold at MANGA waypoint. Failing to find the waypoint in their flight management system, the captain of flight LH-542 asked for the controller to spell the waypoint designation. It seems, however, that the Colombian ATC had trouble understanding the request, as can be heard in the audio footage published by Aviación Comercial en Colombia.
Fortunately, the pilot of an Avianca Brazil (sister company of the Colombian airline Avianca) Airbus A330-200 heard the confusion and decided to act as a translator between the Lufthansa crew and the controller. The plane, registered as PR-OCK, and performing flight O6-852 from Sao Paulo, Brazil to Bogota, was also forced to divert to Cali due to the weather.
Colombian media such as Wradio and Bluradio alarmingly reported that the two planes were in a near collision. But the civil aviation authority of Columbia, Aerocivil, denied such an extreme situation in an official statement. They argue that the air traffic control services of Cali managed to maintain “proper separation” between all diverted planes. An investigation has been opened, which will analyze the audio and radar data from Bogota and Cali control towers, as well as interview the controllers. “It is appropriate to note that none of the airlines that were controlled at the time in this airspace, has filed a formal complaint with the Civil Aeronautics which hints that safety was not impacted,” concludes the authority.